Meet Russia's needs with pragmatism and determination.
If you wish to condense into a single sentence the message that Russian voters delivered clearly last Sunday, that one will do. By electing a Duma in which centrist, forward-looking parties will wield decisive influence, voters injected fresh energy and a sense of direction into our young democracy. Both are needed if we are to make life better for Russians and make Russia a full member of the global economy.
This was the opportunity that a few colleagues and I hoped for when we formed the Unity Party in September. In only a few months we forged a party that ran a very close second to the Communists. Because we will cooperate closely with the Union of Right Forces and other progressive functions, we expect to muster majorities in support of several vital issues.
Some analysts have commented that Unity was formed not to advance policies, but to protect President Boris Yeltsin's flank today and to promote Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency next year. To put it charitably, these are misleading half-truths.
We do want constructive relations between the Duma and the Yeltsin government. So do the voters, who are understandably frustrated with obstructionism, which all too often substitutes needless stalemate for necessary action. Unclogging this channel serves the public interest more than it does the interests of a single leader.
It is true that Unity's founders regard Prime Minister Putin's sound performance in office as an excellent indicator of his suitability for higher office. So do the voters, who give him top grades in opinion polls. Many of them apparently also paid attention when Putin spoke favorably about the programs of both Unity and the Union of Right Forces.
Critics imply that there is something sinister about this developing collaboration between a political leader and political groups. This is a curious notion, particularly when advanced by Americans. Their high school textbooks tell them how Thomas Jefferson and a few associates artfully assembled what is now the Democratic Party before the 1800 election put him in power. Two centuries later, we must operate in a more transparent atmosphere.
It is regrettable that the turmoil of our Duma campaign and the Chechnya conflict deflected attention from several important policy issues. Unity seeks reforms that we now have a good chance to accomplish. They fall under two headings--the economy and human rights. Under the first, we will fight to:
* Overhaul our cumbersome tax code in a ways that lower rates, combat illegal evasion and eliminate loopholes that are unfair to ordinary citizens.
* Protect the legal rights of both domestic and foreign investors, who require reasonable regulations that are fairly enforced.
* Provide material incentives for job-creating investment and greatly simplify procedures relating to production sharing as means to attract more foreign investment.
* End the unnecessary ban on the sale of agricultural land.
Changes along these lines are critical to improve Russia's business environment and improve our standing as a trading partner. But citizens have more personal needs that we will strive to meet. Our legislators must:
* Reform the distribution system for social welfare programs to ensure that benefits go directly to the individuals entitled to them.
* Guarantee the right to choose one's place of residence, as provided by the Constitution, without interference by local officials.
* Improve access to information held by government and quasi-official bodies.
* Improve living conditions in detention facilities and prisons.
This is an ambitious agenda, particularly at a time when Chechnya demands attention and resources. I have some first-hand experience because my day job, as Americans like to say, has been minister of emergency situations. In that role, I recently spent two weeks in Chechnya helping more than 2,500 people return to their homes in areas where peace has been restored and taking other steps to protect innocent civilians.
But the voters are also demanding. They want their leaders to resolve the terrorism problem in Chechnya, to restore civil society there and to press ahead in confronting our national needs. Though they have less than a decade's experience in practicing democracy, they seem eager to convey their wishes via the ballot box; 61 percent of them participated in the Duma election. A new generation of Russian leaders is paying attention.
The writer is the leader of Russia's Unity Party.